Plan to return water voles to Kielder Forest underway
Experts bid to pave the way for Ratty's return
January 2013. Conservationists in Northumberland are working on a plan which could result in water voles being returned to 62,000 hectare (155,000 acre) Kielder Water & Forest Park.
Wiped out by mink
The endangered species was once a familiar sight in the Northumberland Forest until predatory mink invaded its stronghold and wiped out the population. The last local sightings of water vole go back to the 1970s.
Now the Forestry Commission has linked up with the Northumberland Wildlife Trust and Tyne Rivers Trust to devise a two year project to survey the forest to see if mink remain and to look for traces of lingering water vole populations. Initial discussions have been held with the Heritage Fund about potentially funding the work.
Mink disappearing - Probably due to otters return
Mink numbers at Kielder are now thought to be very low with few being spotted by rangers in recent years. One reason for their decline may be the expanding otter population as the two species do not co-exist, although no one knows the mechanics of the frosty relationship.
Forest worker Lee Knight inspects a raft in Kielder for signs of mink.
Tom Dearnley, Forestry Commission Ecologist, explained: "Areas like Kielder Burn and the North Tyne are good water vole habitats so we have a two part plan which will hopefully see them return to former haunts. First we need to establish whether any mink remain as this was the reason for their previous decline. That is what this initial project is all about. Then we can look to a future scheme which would see wild water voles relocated to Kielder as part of a wider North East reintroduction project. Kielder offers suitable havens for a huge range of wildlife, from ospreys to wild goats. Water voles have suffered big declines across England, so returning them to the forest is something we are extremely keen to see happen."
If the projects gains funding the survey will search for mink through sightings, droppings and using floating rafts which mink climb aboard to investigate, leaving behind tell-tale footprints.
Steve Lowe, from the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, added: "It's also vital we work with landowners so we can collate signs of mink in the wider area and so we can survey as far downstream as possible. We have set the scene by doing botanical surveys and landscape modelling and we know that the area still offers suitable habitat with good water quality and grassy riverside edges where voles can feed. A similar project has been undertaken in the Cairngorms, which like Kielder saw its water voles decimated by mink. Here the creature has made an impressive come-back so that is very encouraging. If we do get to the release stage we know from tests on North East water voles that they share similar DNA to past populations so animals relocated to Kielder will be the same genetic strain has those driven out by mink."